Dear Engaged Bystander: When I have the chance to lead a workshop, I am always struck by the strong social expectation that we all seem to hold -- when faced with a crisis, no one will step out of their comfort zone to offer help.
One particularly powerful exercise I use is to ask people to turn to someone next to them and share a bystander story. I explicitly tell them that it does not have to be about sexual violence or inappropriate sexual behaviors. I usually offer an example and describe a situation where I saw an issue and stepped in to help. The last one I used was sitting on an airplane and noticing that a woman was carrying a hot cup of coffee and trying to put away her luggage. We were all watching until I offered to hold her hot coffee. Then another passenger helped her lift her luggage to the overhead compartment and a third held onto her other bag. It is simple but shows how one action can have a domino effect and touch a number of surrounding people.
I have heard many many stories through this simple exercise. But what strikes me each time is the common theme that begins with "when x happened, no one did anything" -- even when the person telling the story did something. Even when others joined in to help, the story is told with the theme, “when x happened, no one did anything…”
During the workshop I try to talk about how to begin to retell the story. "When x happened, I did not see anyone responding, so I did do/say something. And I found that once chose to act, that single action encouraged others to do/say something. ..”
Telling these stories with a sense of hope is so essential to changing how we respond to sexual violence, harassment, and events that are inappropriate or just uncomfortable. Often the people who choose to tell their story out loud bring up their doubts about whether they should have acted differently, did they do enough, and what other resources could they have used. This retelling of the story helps everyone in the room hear that something was done – and while it may not be the perfect response it was a clear and important beginning.
So my thought is to take time in EVERY workshop to encourage people to share their positive stories, give them feedback about how important each action can be, and offer concrete examples that celebrate the small ways we can say or do something.